Archive for ‘Iceland’


“I’m so cool and calculated, alone in the modern world…”

It’s becoming a genre unto itself: the call by scholars of the Middle Ages to invigorate their fields by reaching out to new audiences. In the latest example at The Chronicle of Higher Education, medievalist and English professor Christine Schott asks an evergreen question—”[h]ow can literary scholarship make a claim for its value when its product reaches only the other members of its own narrow field?”—and writes with candor about her work:

Of course I have an interpretive argument about the marginalia I study, and I do not wish to abandon that side of the field either. I am reasonably capable of dressing up my theories about material culture, genre, and self-writing in fancy vocabulary, but I maintain that they are no smarter for being decked out in academic regalia. And when it comes down to it, I don’t want to write scholarship that my friends and nonacademic peers cannot understand.

Schott plucks a painfully abstruse passage from a 1993 book about literary theory and boils it down to a lovely, clear, informative sentence—a rare skill. I’ve considered the rebuttals by humanities scholars who claim that specialized fields need their own patois, and since my career isn’t at stake, I can say that I find those defenses bunk; you can dazzle your colleagues with rarefied terms without writing in a style that makes the rest of us laugh out loud. Schott is wise to be sensitive to outside perceptions:

When I talk to fellow scholars, I might frame my work as “the study of paratextual material in late medieval vernacular scribal culture.” Even I hate the sound of that sentence. Let me offer, instead, the version I gave my Aunt Bea, who once ventured to ask me what I work on. I told her, “I study the things that people wrote in the margins of books in medieval Iceland.” When I said that, Aunt Bea wasn’t exactly impressed, but she did understand exactly what I meant.

Actually, what she said was, “They give Ph.D.s for that sort of thing, huh?” A familiar response from anyone who, like my aunt, works in a nice, practical field like nursing. And yet I get excited by a reaction like hers, because that is a teaching moment.

Schott’s solution is “to write even our scholarly work for a popular audience.” That’s a great idea—but why be so conservative? After all, professionalism hasn’t smothered her joy:

I always launch into a litany of the wonderful things one finds in the margins of Icelandic manuscripts: poetry, proverbs, complaints (my pen is dull, I didn’t get enough fish to eat, my wife is mad at me and it’s not my fault — all real examples). Part of the value of my work as I see it, then, is simple translation: “nu kolnar mér á fingrunum” means nothing to most people. But “my fingers are getting cold” is both transparent and so delightfully human that people often comment on how un-foreign these complaints sound. I don’t think you should have to get an advanced degree to enjoy these little glimpses into long-forgotten lives.

Look at that: the enthusiasm that makes non-scholars light up, the humanism they crave but can rarely describe, and the simple eloquence of someone who is uniquely suited to give them both.

“When I suggest changing our target audience,” Schott writes, “what I’m really talking about is marketing, and we are rightly suspicious of treating intellectual pursuit as a commodity.” Those of us who’ve migrated from academia to writing and the arts understand those concerns. I get tired of hearing that we can’t be only writers anymore, that we need to become experts at marketing and branding. Call it advocacy, then; no one else is standing by to champion us, and clearly there are ways to do it that don’t cheapen your work. Heck, more than two million American teenagers have had a blast with poetry because a former Kool-Aid marketing executive knew when to stop taking and how to start doing.

And so my humble advice to medievalists is this: stop talking about hypothetical outreach and do something. Write a book for a trade press. Spin your scholarly insights into poems. Produce a podcast. Start a blog. Make YouTube videos or Vines or a novelty Twitter account. Stage a play. Lecture at your local Osher center. Pitch articles to trendy media outlets like NPR or The Atlantic. Translate texts for non-scholars. Give the good work of strangers the attention you wish your own were receiving. You decide where to draw your own line. After you stare down a few frowning peers, the way is less fraught than you think: You won’t make enough money to fret about your soul, and you’ll compromise your scholarship only if you pander to your audience or fail to beguile them with the promise of much larger worlds.

I’ve written before that if the circles of scholars, writers, and artists overlapped more than they do, we’d all benefit. Professor Schott sees that we’re in danger of entombment in our own narrow niches:

What is literary scholarship for if not to aid readers in appreciating, understanding, interpreting, and questioning the literature that they encounter? In writing for a tiny coterie of specialists, we may achieve great heights of intellectual pursuit, but we are generally preaching to the choir. If we are not content with our society turning into a post-literary world, then we have some proselytizing to do, to people like my Aunt Bea. That is not marketing, that is teaching.

Indeed it is, and I hope Schott will share her enthusiasm wherever she can. The right blend of scholarship and passion can hearten the rest of us with all the thrilling alchemy of art.

“So we go inside, and we gravely read the stones…”

“[P]ioneering, erratic, and irascible”—that’s how scholar Andrew Wawn introduces a medievalist I’d never heard of, apparently because his spectre haunts only a few narrow stacks in Scandinavian libraries. Although George Stephens published more than 500 books, articles, pamphlets, translations, and plays, his Wikipedia entry is a sorry 120 words long, and it isn’t likely to be lengthened or annotated by legions of Tolkienesque fans. Even so, Wawn’s engaging 1995 article about him—“George Stephens, Cheapinghaven, and Old Northern Antiquity”—makes an amusing but sympathetic case for looking back at scholars of yore-days and seeing not pitiable caricatures, but weird, vivid, quizzical lives.

Wawn calls George Stephens “a fascinatingly marginal figure, an exile by choice, a rebel by temperament, cocooned in his book-lined Copenhagen study glowering across the North Sea at the (in his view) wretched condition of England.” Born in England in 1813, Stephens moved to Sweden in 1834 to teach English before taking a lectureship, and then a professorship, at the University of Copenhagen. (Hearken, jobless scholars! Three years earlier, the enterprising Stephens circulated an English-language pamphlet with the efficacious title Hurrah for Denmark.)

Stephens is one of many unsung souls who hammered out the cogs of the medieval-studies machine. He was an influential collector and classifier of folk tales, his work on runic inscriptions founded a sub-field, and he published the first translation of an Icelandic saga into English—albeit from Swedish. “He translated Icelandic sagas,” Wawn writes, “while contributing to their reoralization by writing saga-based parlor songs; he taught Shakespeare whilst himself writing plays on Viking subjects in Elizabethan style; and he contributed vigorously and unashamedly to popular polemics, finding it no mark of virtue to proclaim the virtues of a democratized literary-critical process in an impenetrable and robotic meta-language.”

He’s also easy to mock. Wawn devotes most of his article to Stephens’ virtually unread 1857 play, Revenge, or Woman’s Love, in which King Edgar of Mercia is waylaid by Vikings while on pilgrimage to Sweden, where he’s forced to summon his wife to be sacrificed to Odin. Wawn is patient with Stephens’ “pyrotechnic display of newly minted compounds, anaphoric elaboration, and (alas) syntactic congestion,” and I enjoyed picturing the climax featuring “the return of the cave-dwelling witch, accompanied by much smoke and many explosions,” but why snicker? “Notwithstanding its breathless and somewhat confusing denouement,” Wawn says, “there is much spirited and good-humored writing in the play, and it would be ponderously sobersided to miss the element of jeu d’esprit which helps to drive the whole work.”

What Wawn does here is humane. Seeing an eccentric medievalist rendered all the more comical by time, Wawn doesn’t “deconstruct,” “interrogate,” “negotiate,” or (good Lord) “problematize” him. Instead, Wawn peers into a bundle of contradictions—”the English Anglophile exiled in Scandinavia, the modern Christian fundamentalist fascinated by ancient paganism, the British Tory radical who translated a treatise in favor of an hereditary Danish monarchy”—and in 40 pages, reckons his humanity.

To my surprise, Wawn contrasts Stephens with another philologist whose life and work were shaped by Mercia. “George Stephens, it need hardly be said, was no Tolkien,” he admits, “and Revenge, it need hardly be added, is no Lord of the Rings. The play could number its nineteenth-century readers in tens, and its twentieth-century ones on the healthy fingers of a severely maimed hand.” I laughed at that line, because it’s tempting to see Stephens as a prevenient Ignatius Reilly bumbling around Copenhagen, crusading for influence, obsessed with tomorrow’s obscurities, repelling his colleagues with political rants. It’s harder, but kinder, to place this minor scholar alongside a famous one, in an article that’s more subtly and sensitively written than anything its subject could have mustered, and not lose him in the shadow.

“That one should succeed commandingly whilst another fails eccentrically needs (and finds) no explanation in the self-preoccupied world of modern literary theory,” Wawn concludes. “We might rather look to the chaos theory of real human lives.” In his choice of subject and through his own example, Wawn affirms something that isn’t always clear: there are people behind the scholarship we read.

“…and stained in the blood of a whole generation.”

In Icelandic sagas, it’s not an uncommon motif: Clinging to old ways, warriors flail as the heroic code that defines their lives gives way to something new and strange. Perhaps that’s how lifelong soap fans feel this week, as All My Children succumbs to cancellation after nearly 42 years, while its doomed elder sister, One Life to Live, glares anxiously into its grave.

Baby swaps, preposterous wealth, evil twins, travels through time—soaps are easy to mock, but their sheer continuity is remarkable. (Making All My Children and One Life to Live look like pikers, Guiding Light began on radio in 1937 and wasn’t snuffed out until 2009.) Most of us, medievalists especially, can point to the survival and adaptation of stories across decades and centuries and cultures—Arthurian legends, Icelandic sagas, the Song of Roland—but except for comic strips, I’m hard pressed to think of another example of continuous storylines unfolding five days a week for more than 40 years, sometimes pleasing their audience, sometimes not, rolling with the culture while aspiring, sometimes, to universality:

It starts on a quiet note with a group of people, neither particularly good nor particularly bad, who, because they are the way they are, clash with each other; not violently, but sufficiently hard to cause ill-feeling. This casual ill-feeling is transmitted to kinsmen and descendants, to friends and to allies. More and more people become involved, with fatal results…The early actors of the drama fade out, but the troubles they have started now seem to have a life of their own, until the action is galloping headlong, with brief tantalizing pauses where control seems to have been momentarily asserted, from minor mishap to major tragedy, until finally its inevitable impulse is exhausted in the last elegiac chapter.

That’s from Magnus Magnusson’s introduction to the 1959 Penguin Classics edition of Njal’s Saga, and it’s as fine a summary of the arc of a family saga, medieval or modern, as any you’re likely to find.

Even if the Cortlandts and the Chandlers never shed blood at the Law Rock, and although Erika Kane (who once faced down a grizzly bear) might quail before the ornery, resilient Hallgerd, there’s no harm in hearing outlandish medieval echoes in the death cries of a genre. The soaps’ own echoes carry on; they showed prime-time TV producers the potential of serialized rather than episodic storytelling, and early on, they crowdsourced plot twists to indefatigable fans.

Of course, the medieval/soap-opera connection has been common knowledge since 2009, when a courtly-love subplot on General Hospital showed that at least one of its writers has taken a medieval lit class. As such, we can only wish the citizens of Pine Valley a safe journey into the television afterlife, and hope that there, unlike in medieval Iceland, “face-lift” means something entirely kind.

“Twisting like a flame in a slow dance, baby…”

Although no less a folklorist than Kermit the Frog wondered why there were so many songs about rainbows, someone once pointed out to me that there aren’t many songs about rainbows, really. Off the top of my head, I know only one or two others; few people can name many more. Such is also the case with volcanoes in medieval Icelandic literature: Given the relative size of the corpus, you expect to find far more of them than you actually do.

Norse myths smolder with the threat of fiery doom. According to historian Oren Falk, the great Sigurd Nordal perceived enough lava-flecked glimmers in the prophetic poem “Völuspá” to see in its portrayal of Ragnarok “a distinctively Icelandic apocalypse.” Falk also finds mountain-bound giants in the 12th-century poem “Hallmundarkviða” who watch as “glaciers blaze . . . coal-black crags burst; the curse of wood [that is, fire] unleashes storms; a marvellous mud begins to flow from the ground.” So where there’s lava there’s volcanoes, right?

Nope—these distant poetic wisps vanish when scholars get too close. Falk spots only four anecdotes in Landnámabók, the Icelandic Book of Settlements, that hint at medieval Icelanders’ perception of volcanic activity. He scours the late medieval Bishops’ Sagas and finds only two mentions of volcanic eruptions, while “[t]he entire corpus of Family Sagas, thirteen thick volumes’-worth in the standard modern editions, seems to know nothing of lava and ash plumes.”

Even if Icelanders didn’t work many volcanoes into their poems and sagas, the medieval world nonetheless responds with a low, subterranean rumble every time a flustered news anchor tries to say “Eyjafjallajökull.” Its name may look weird, and its proper pronunciation baffles the non-Icelandic ear, but as a simmering reminder of the relationships between Germanic languages, this billowing Aschenwolke of a word is very nearly English.

The first element of “Eyjafjallajökull” is familiar to English speakers as the suffix -ey. You see it in place-names like Orkney and Jersey, and it’s the related Old English ieg that gives us the first syllable of its modern descendant, “island.” (Eyja was the Old Icelandic genitive plural.)

The second element, fjalla, has mostly disappeared from English, but the OED points out that you can see it in northwestern England at Bowfell and Scawfell—the names of hills.

Jökull, the Icelandic word for “glacier,” is the diminutive of jaki, “broken piece of ice,” and had a cognate in Old English, gicel. When Anglo-Saxon scribes needed a homegrown equivalent for Latin stiria, they translated it as ises gicel. The original word became ikyl or ikel in Middle English, and you can still see it frozen in time at the end a modern noun that fuses all of these pieces: “icicle.”

Jóhann Sigurjónsson, one of the first Icelandic poets to write blank verse, foresaw an apocalypse both personal and cosmic in which jóreykur lífsins þyrlast til himna, “the steeds of life swirl their smoke to the skies.” The plume of the “island-mountains glacier” will eventually dissipate, but even if we can’t now see the volcanoes, we can at least watch the ash settle into craggy, unexpected places, and patiently look for the relevant words.

“Walk without rhythm, it won’t attract the worm…”

When I was in Iceland in 1998, I stood where the locals chucked their pagan idols over the falls; I saw where Snorri Sturluson met his doom; and I got chased away from Hliðarendi by a dog. Five minutes later, Americans started visiting Iceland in droves; more recently, we all learned what happens when a nation that subsists on fishing and aluminum smelting decides to have a go at investment banking. I’m still abnormally fond of Iceland, but one of my sharpest classmates and traveling companions from ’98 has been busy indeed. He turned his passion into scholarship and became, to my delight, an expert on medieval Icelandic combat.

An award-winning acoustic engineer with a doctorate from MIT and nearly two dozen patents to his name, William R. Short made the sort of radical career change most people only dream of. Bill is now the Viking-in-residence at the Higgins Armory Museum and the author of Viking Weapons and Combat Techniques, a new book that reflects a decade spent researching, reconstructing, and demonstrating the fighting methods of saga heroes.

“Little in my academic training prepared me for life as a Viking in a museum,” Bill says on his Web site, but he’s being modest; his scientific background is exactly what makes Viking Weapons and Combat Techniques a valuable book. Rather than rush into the fray armed only with the romanticism that gives historical reenactors a bad name, Bill methodically defines his terms; he provides a taxonomy of Viking arms that extends even to such improvised weapons as rocks and household implements; and he surveys the written, visual, forensic, and archaeological sources, explaining their limitations and, most tantalizingly, pointing out where text and object disagree. Non-scholars and newcomers to the Viking arsenal will find this book quite readable, but medievalists in other fields will be intrigued by wonderfully trivial mysteries: For example, there’s no evidence for the chin-straps that surely held Viking helmets atop Viking heads, and nothing is known about several weapons named in the sagas but misleadingly translated into English as “hallberd.”

Already a useful reference work, Viking Weapons and Combat Techniques also documents efforts by Bill and his colleagues to rethink saga-era melee not as “two hairy men trading great blows with one another, almost as if they were trying to chop down trees” but as its own sort of martial art. Bill repeatedly stresses the conjecture and speculation that goes into reconstructing the combat techniques of medieval Icelanders, but the photographic sequences in this book convincingly show the versatility of a good, small shield, and also why a spear was no match for a sword.

I thought I had little interest in Viking combat, but the next time I pick up Njal’s Saga, I’ll be glad that Bill’s book has armed me with a whole new set of visuals. Viking Weapons and Combat Techniques is a concise but thorough handbook for scholars, saga readers, and even historical novelists; it’s the sort of work that puts a good face on independent scholarship and a worthy, bearded face on historical reenactment.

“Eating with a spoon, they don’t give you knives…”

Many English translations of the sagas mention “sour curds,” but Icelanders know the stuff by its proper name, skyr. Shortly before medieval outlaw Egil Skallagrimson got into a famous drinking-and-barfing contest at the home of Armod Beard, he downed a hearty bowl of skyr, and his descendants still enjoy the thick, sour, yogurt-like cheese curds:

When the farm laborer rises in the morning he expects his allowance of skyr as a matter of course, along with his black bread and coffee. And when the chance visitor from town drops in, he welcomes a plate of skyr, along with cakes and coffee, as the most satisfying form of refreshment. Nor is the taste unpleasant, but one needs practice in order to empty a soup-plate full of it with good grace.

One brand of imported skyr has been available in parts of the U.S. for several years, but I was stunned today to stumble across Siggi’s Skyr, every six-ounce cup of which is made in America by an entrepreneurial, homesick Icelander who refined the recipe in his TriBeCa apartment and set up a skyr operation on a farm in upstate New York.

Skyr is an acquired taste, and Siggi’s Skyr isn’t cheap—it’s around $2.50 for six ounces, as opposed to $1.99 for the same quantity of the imported brand—but it’s powerful stuff: no fat, 16 grams of protein (which makes it more protein-rich than an entire chicken thigh), 13 grams of carbohydrates, and the calcium of two-thirds of a cup of milk.

Of course, the American who wants to eat like a Viking faces hard questions: Should one buy the imported skyr and support Iceland’s cratered economy? Should one buy the domestic stuff and support a very weird small business? And for crying out loud, with flavors like “pomegranate and passion fruit,” why doesn’t it come in galangal?

“…hiding out in tree-tops, shouting out rude names.”

Medieval Icelanders may not have been able to charge $100,000 per second for advertising, but they too had their spectator sports, including the ball games that accompanied the two-day bout of feasting and drinking at the start of every winter.

In Gisli’s Saga, crowds gather to cheer on their favorite players of knattleikr, a sport sometimes described as a combination of rugby, hockey, cricket, and lacrosse. Gisli—widely acclaimed as the second-cleverest outlaw in the sagas—hits the ice against a background of family drama: Gisli’s wife’s brother, Vestein, has just been murdered, because Gisli’s sister-in-law, Asgerd, was making eyes at him, which made Asgerd’s husband, Gisli’s brother Thorkel, jealous. Thorgrim, who’s married to the sister of Thorkel and Gisli, is the likely suspect.

Get all that? Doesn’t matter. Here (from Martin Regal’s translation) are Gisli and Thorgrim working out their rivalry on the frozen gridiron, with Thogrim sort of confessing to the murder in skaldic verse:

The games now started up as if nothing had happened. Gisli and his brother-in-law, Thorgrim, usually played against each other. There was some disagreement as to who was the stronger, but most people thought it was Gisli. They played ball games at Seftjorn pond and there was always a large crowd.

One day, when the gathering was even larger than usual, Gisli suggested that the game be evenly matched.

“That’s exactly what we want,” said Thorkel. “What’s more, we don’t want you to hold back against Thorgrim. Word is going around that you are not giving your all. I’d be pleased to see you honoured if you are the stronger.”

“We have not been fully proven against each other yet,” said Gisli, “but perhaps it’s leading up to that.”

They started the game and Thorgrim was outmatched. Gisli brought him down and the ball went out of play. Then Gisli went for the ball, but Thorgrim held him back and stopped him from getting it. Then Gisli tackled Thorgrim so hard that he could do nothing to stop falling. His knuckles were grazed, blood rushed from his nose and the flesh was scraped from his knees. Thorgrim rose very slowly, looked towards Vestein’s burial mound, and said:

Spear screeched in his wound
sorely — I cannot be sorry.

Running, Gisli took the ball and pitched it between Thorgrim’s shoulder-blades. The blow thrust him flat on his face. Then Gisli said

Ball smashed his shoulders
broadly — I cannot be sorry.

Thorkel sprang to his feet and said, “It’s clear who is the strongest and most highly accomplished. Now, let’s put an end to this.” And so they did.

A modern reader can greet Gisli’s Saga with a sigh of relief, happy not to be living in those awful Middle Ages. After all, the days when star athletes might work out their personal issues on the field or throw tantrums, let alone murder someone, are clearly long behind us.

“Next time, la luna…”

On Monday, in the wake of its national banking meltdown, the Icelandic government collapsed, its demise hastened by a saga-era tradition: the angry mob. The Economist can do a better job of explaining the political implications than I ever could; I’ll only note that most photos of the protests in front of the Althing, the Icelandic parliament, show crowds congregated in Austurvöllur, one of Reykjavik’s most picturesque public squares and—come on, surely you saw this coming—a place of symbolic interest to medievalists.

According to Landnámabók, the Icelandic “Book of Settlements,” the first permanent Nordic settler in Iceland was Ingólfr Arnarson, who put down roots in A.D. 874. Written centuries after the fact, Landnámabók may not be a perfectly reliable source, but Ingólfr’s legend is kind of fun:

That summer when Ingolf set out with his companions to settle Iceland, Harald Fairhair had had been for twelve years King over Norway. There had elapsed from the creation of the world six thousand and seventy three winters, and from the Incarnation of our Lord eight hundred and seventy four years. They held together until they sighted Iceland, then they separated. When Ingolf sighted Iceland he cast overboard his high seat pillars for an omen, and he made the vow that he would settle there wherever his high seat pillar came ashore.

Ingólfr’s foster brother, Hjorleif, settled west of where Ingólfr camped out, but he was killed by his Irish slaves. Ingólfr took revenge and killed them—supposedly naming the Westman Islands after the Irishmen in the process—while his own slaves, Karli and Vifill, searched the coast for his cast-off pillars. Karli, who came across the pillars three winters later, found the ritual anticlimactic. “To an evil end did we pass through goodly country-sides,” he griped, “that we should take up abode on this outlying ness.” Karli ran away—but when Ingólfr, his slaves, and the entourage he filched from his dead foster brother raised the recovered pillars, they were witnessing, of course, the founding of Reykjavik.

Austurvöllur is said to have been one of Ingólfr’s hayfields; today a statue of 19th-century independence campaigner Jon Sigurdsson stands in its center, with the Icelandic parliament and the country’s most venerable church in sight. I like the symbolism of Icelandic democracy playing out on Ingólfr Arnarson’s old property. Maybe there’s a certain pagan allure to the legend of the pillars, a plain case of casting your fate to the cold northern tides, as the British and the Dutch did with their Icelandic bank accounts, but the determination of the modern protesters also recalls lines from the Poetic Edda that Ingólfr Arnarson probably knew:

Erat maðr alls vesall,
þótt hann sé illa heill;
sumr er af sonum sæll,
sumr af frændum,
sumr af fé ærnu,
sumr af verkum vel.

Betra er lifðum
en sé ólifðum,
ey getr kvikr kú;
eld sá ek upp brenna
auðgum manni fyrir,
en úti var dauðr fyr durum.

“No man is wholly wretched, though he have ill luck,” these verses read in English. “One is blessed with sons, another with kinsmen, another has sufficient money, another has done decent deeds. Better to live than not to live; the living man gets the cow. I saw a fire blaze up for the wealthy man, but he was dead outside his door.” The wisp of smoke that passes for Nordic optimism infuses those lines, asserting that problems can always get worse. Ingólfr’s heirs, angrily milling about Austurvöllur with placards and flags, are raising their pillar on a much less medieval foundation: the notion that Iceland can also be better.

“She made you tea, asked for your autograph…”

In the wake of economic Ragnarok, as Icelanders contemplate years of subsisting on fish, failed banks such as Glitnir and Kaupthing are suddenly all over the news. We already know that “Glitnir” is a name from Norse mythology, but “Kaupthing” is also a name that’s of interest to medievalists—or to anyone who dabbles in languages.

During the heyday of the Roman Empire, neighboring barbarians apparently absconded with the Latin verb cauponari, “to trade,” and made it a part of their proto-Germanic language. The Vikings who spoke West Norse, a North Germanic language and the parent of modern Icelandic, adopted it for terms like kaup, “bargain, wages,” kaupa, “to buy, to bargain,” kaup-maðr, “trader, merchant,” and kaup-staðr, “market town.” These kaup-words are preserved almost perfectly in modern Icelandic, the language that puts the kaup in Kaupthing.

In East Germanic, kaup settled into Gothic as káupōn, “to traffic,” before the entire language shuffled off to philological Valhalla.

In the West Germanic languages, modern German cultivated Kauf, “a purchase or acquisition,” kaufen, “to buy,” and Kaufmann, “merchant”—with the latter shedding light on a familiar German surname.

Meanwhile, in Old English, the “k” became a “ch” sound in words like ceapian, “to bargain or trade,” ceapman, “merchant,” and ceapstow, “trading place.” Thanks to the Anglo-Saxons, now you know the root of the word “cheap,” you know that “Kaufman” and “Chapman” are basically the same name, and the next time you see English road-signs for Chipstead, Cheapside, and Chepstow, you can easily guess what went on at those places more than a thousand years ago.

All that from a failed Icelandic bank? Absolutely: a wealth of cognates derived from Latin’s token investment in proto-Germanic. Ach—if only you’d put your money in Germanic languages, just think about how rich you’d be today…

“…for the gold in their bags, or the knives in their backs.”

Iceland is bankrupt. The króna is worthless, the banks are disasters, investors in England and Holland are livid, and people are bracing for difficult times. Nobody knows where they’re going from here, but this economic implosion also threatens Iceland’s cherished independence, a notable part of its medieval past.

You can still see where they did it, where Gizurr Thorvaldsson and his henchmen ambushed Snorri Sturluson. Priest, politician, lawyer, and poet, Snorri loved to lounge al fresco in his steamy pool at Reykholt. There, on his own property, on September 23, 1241, his enemies stabbed him to death, probably in his basement. He kind of had it coming: He had used his relatives as pawns in a series of grand political games that made him the wealthiest and most powerful man in Iceland, but also the greediest and most arrogant—until his former son-in-law sought all of those distinctions for himself.

At tiny Reykholt, modern Icelanders have honored Snorri with a statue. As the author of the Prose Edda, Snorri collected fading wisdom that otherwise would have been lost; Heimskringla, his history of the Norse kings, earned him a reputation as the Nordic Thucydides; and he may be the unnamed author of the brutal and humorous Egil’s Saga. All of that is lovely, but in an age that regards writers as rarely consequential, we ought to remember how belletrist Snorri Sturluson, through wild rapacity, helped bring his country to ruin.

In the 13th century, Icelanders saw themselves as a people in moral freefall. Men of all stations openly took mistresses, lawyers exploited the system, and family and friends broke faith with each other for money, all of which made the ninth through eleventh centuries—the earlier era described in the sagas—seem like a golden age. Iceland’s educated men wrote down those sagas; all the while, the kings of Norway looked for a way to take over.

In Heimskringla, Snorri describes the debate that arises when King Olaf of Norway asks the Icelanders to cede him a barren, outlying island. Some Icelanders are fine with the arrangement, but one man, Einar, plays the contrarian:

I am chary of my words about this business, because no one has asked me. But if you wish to have my opinion, then I would say that it were best for the people of our country not to subject themselves here to pay tribute to King Olaf, nor to all those taxes such as he has imposed on Norwegians. And we would impose that bondage not only on ourselves but both on ourselves and our sons and all our people who live in this land; and that bondage this land would never be free or rid of. And though this king be a good one, as I believe he is, yet it is likely to be the case, as always hitherto, that when there is a change in the succession there will be some kings who are good and some who are bad. But if our countrymen would preserve their freedom, such as they have had ever since they settled here, then it would be best not to let the king get any hold here, whether it be a piece of land or our promises to pay fixed taxes, which might be interpreted as due from subjects.

Snorri wrote that episode; he put those words in Einar’s mouth. But Snorri also sought the patronage of the Norwegian king, which made his countrymen suspicious of him; on the other hand, he smoothed over tensions with Norwegian merchants and averted a Norwegian invasion. But Snorri lived for Snorri, and when he visited Norway in 1237 with a seditious friend and then sailed for home in 1239 without the king’s permission, he was branded a traitor. After Snorri’s killing, the Norwegian king claimed his vast landholdings as compensation. Through recklessness and greed, Snorri had, in death, compromised his country’s independence by giving the Norwegian throne a foothold, thus ending Iceland’s four-century run as a monarchy-free, oligarchic commonwealth. Two decades later, most Icelanders swore oaths of loyalty to the king; within two years, Iceland belonged to Norway.

Independence has long been a hallmark of Icelandic exceptionalism, mostly because it’s been so elusive. After centuries of rule by Norway and Denmark, Iceland achieved independence in 1944 as Denmark was otherwise occupied. The establishment of a NATO base in 1951, so soon after independence, prompted noticeable grief in Iceland, but the latter half of the 20th century was a time of unprecedented wealth and progress—all of which came crashing down last week.

The likely solutions are troubling. There’s talk of an IMF bailout, the króna is being declared “history,” and Iceland may need to join the EU and adopt the euro as its currency. The Russians have offered a massive loan, which troubles old Norway, while strange rumors are circulating that Iceland will let Russia use the now-vacant NATO base. Ominously, the prime minister warned that in times of trouble, “one has to look for new friends.”

History doesn’t repeat itself; that’s a chestnut the Icelanders shouldn’t abide. Suffering now from the schemes of modern Snorris, they also can’t afford to pause and be cautious like Einar. Those of us who are fond of Iceland will hope for a leader who’s made for these times, someone who knows this crisis has no precedent but whose response will show an appreciation for that medieval love of independence—and the value of those first 400 years.